Not So Foreign Cinema

Not So Foreign Cinema


By Andrew Shifren

Avatar. Titanic. Jurassic World. These are the top three all-time highest grossing films globally. One takes place across the galaxy 150 years in the future, another on a cruise liner 100 years in the past, and the third on a dinosaur-infested tropic paradise in our present day.

What is the obvious connection between these movies and the other 97 of the top 100 highest grossing movies in history? Every one was produced in the United States. Andy Warhol once said, “It’s the movies that have really been running things in America ever since they were invented. They show you what to do, how to do it, when to do it, how to feel about it, and how to look how you feel about it.” Does U.S. film now run the world as well? Are U.S. movies so dominant that they determine how the rest of the world acts, thinks, and feels?

Probably not. On average between 2005 and 2009, India and Nigeria produced the most films in the world, 1178 and 1093 respectively. The U.S. produced a mere 554. The U.S. is obviously the movie frontrunner in some regards. U.S. movies earn the most money and have on average the highest production values. But the Indian and Nigerian film industries are increasingly dominating their own regions and their influence is spreading across the globe.

Indian cinema is often wrongly referred to as Bollywood. In fact, Bollywood only refers to the Hindi-language movie industry centered around Mumbai. While most Indian movies are commonly linked by fantastic costumes, bright colors, melodrama, and song and dance, each regional film industry produces movies in different local languages, such as Tamil, Telugu, Bengali, and Kannada.

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One of the most important historical events in the inception of the Indian film industry was when the British regime in India passed a set of regulations promoting British films over U.S. films. Even after independence, India retained those laws, but instead enshrined Indian films over U.S. ones. The policy has served as a kind of incubator and allowed Indian film to flourish without being stifled by the competition of American films.

Indian cinema has developed its own unique style under the security of protectionist policies. You can watch a practically incoherent fight scene involving Bollywood movie hunk Salman Kahn punching veritable armies of bad guys all while shirtless. In the next scene that same macho fighter may break into a musical number without bothering to conceal his lip sync singing. And, this slightly disjointed, upbeat style of movie seems to be gaining traction. In June 2013, a Bollywood hit, “Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani” reached #9 on the U.S. box office charts. And in China, where companies are building movie theatres at a breakneck pace, Indian movies have gained impressive traction. This past summer, the Indian movie “PK” earned about $20 million U.S. dollars and is set to become the highest grossing Indian movie ever in China.

Nigerian cinema, sometimes referred to as Nollywood (Seeing a trend?), has its base not in highly produced blockbusters like in India or the U.S., but rather low-budget films that speak to the concerns and values of many Africans. The Nigerian government released data in 2014 illuminating the nation’s $3.3 billion industry. And the only larger employer in the country is the government itself.

The Nigerian film industry had an inauspicious start. In 1992 a Nigerian merchant, Kenneth Nnebue, ordered a large shipment of blank videotapes from Taiwan. In order to boost his sales, Nnebue hired a director to copy a movie onto the tapes. That movie, “Living in Bondage,” was about a farmer who moves to a big city and is haunted by his wife’s ghost. It was produced for just $12,000 and sold more than 500,000 copies. Nigerian movie profits cannot be quantified in the same way that U.S. Blockbusters can be. Less than 1% of revenue originates from the formal box-office. The industry revolves more around DVDs and home viewing.

The cultural implications of Nollywood are significant. Some Africans feel that Nollywood is responsible for the Nigerianisation of Africa and the suffocating of other cultures. Others see Nollywood as a new voice for Africa. One Nigerian director, Lancelot Idowu, in a response to Western media that only focuses on African disease, civil war, and hardship, said proudly, “Nollywood is the voice of Africa, the answer to CNN.” Nollywood’s influence is beginning to extend beyond Africa. Prominent Nollywood producer Jason Njoku signed an exclusive contract this year with Netflix, foreshadowing Nigerian film’s entrance onto the global stage.


The international community has increasingly wrested dominance in the film industry away from the U.S. in recent years. Japan has an incubator law similar to India’s, and since 2000 has steadily increased the its international market share. Homegrown Chinese films are also becoming increasingly popular among Chinese audiences. Hong Kong Studios’ “Monster Hunt” earned 2.438 billion yuan to make it the highest ever grossing film in China. India and Nigeria today are both impressing their unique film-making styles onto the fabric of world cinema. Indian films with their dance numbers and happy endings usually view life through a more consistently positive lens than most movie viewers are used to. And Nollywood is proving to the world that quality acting, relatable themes, and a profound story can make a stellar film without millions of dollars of backing. These successful film industries give hope to places like China and Japan with burgeoning local film industries. Given the freedom to do so, people will express themselves through film, sometimes providing a refreshingly different view of the world.

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